Berlioz
Les Troyens – Opera in two parts
(’The Capture of Troy’ & ’The Trojans at Carthage’) and five acts; libretto by the composer after Virgil’s Aeneid
Aeneas – Ben Heppner
Dido – Michelle De Young
Cassandra – Petra Lang
Anna – Sara Mingardo
Corebus – Peter Mattei
Narbal – Stephen Milling
Iopas – Kenneth Tarver
Hylas – Toby Spence
The Ghost of Hector – Orlin Anastassov
Panthus – Tigran Martirossian
Ascanius – Isabelle Cals
Priam – Alan Ewing
Hecuba – Guang Yang

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis
CD No: LSO LIVE – LSO 0010 CD (4 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: December 2001
The concert performances of Berlioz’s The Trojans, which graced the Barbican Hall three times between 3-9 December 2000 (and from which these CDs are taken), were unforgettable experiences. I was in no doubt after the two performances I attended that The Trojans is one of the very greatest operas and that in Sir Colin Davis it has an interpreter of rare dedication and perception. I think we knew that already though!
It’s difficult to imagine this astonishing epic being better realised. The LSO’s playing is alive to every nuance, detail and expressive gesture in the score. Within ten minutes one has the sheer quality in focus – the deft articulations of woodwind and brass, the vitality and devotion of the LS Chorus, Sir Colin’s absolute belief in every note, the warmth and poetic weight of the LSO’s strings, so telling in the sustained backdrop to recitatives, and Petra Lang’s intense assumption of the ill-fated Cassandra, which sets the soloists’ standard, one upheld quite remarkably.
This is dramatic stuff – the listener is hooked. The Greeks have suddenly disappeared after a ten-year siege of Troy. They have left the fabled wooden horse. Only Cassandra has a sense of foreboding that is borne out by the close of Act 2 – she kills herself. (Berlioz saw The Trojans as a one-night, five-act production; the two parts came about by dint of Parisian opera-house doubts and restrictions.) Come ’The Trojans at Carthage’, Aeneas, who escaped Troy, is en route to Italy to form a new Troy – Rome – and lands at Carthage. Queen Dido and he are attracted. By the close, she has committed suicide, forlorn at Aeneas’s leaving.
The Trojans is a hugely involving opera. It’s all to do with Berlioz’s astute sense of characterisation, his astonishing use of the orchestra, both as an emotional vessel and through fantastic innovation, and the wonderful musical invention. Within the first minutes, one’s core has been stolen by a melody of ineffable loveliness, 1’38”-1’54” (track 3), by Davis’s control of line and dynamics and his complete identification, and then by the depth with which Lang reveals Cassandra’s heartache; Berlioz’s harmonic complement and (Beethovenian) humanity seals it.
Emerging out of Gluck and pre-empting Wagner, The Trojans is both pivotal and visionary. The use of recitative, the requirement for set-pieces – ballet – as determined by conventions of the day, do not compromise the continuity of the narrative; Berlioz’s genius is such that nothing seems out of place. Things like Act One’s ’Wrestlers’ Dance’, Act Three’s entry of builders, sailors and farm-workers and the Act Four ballet music are more than tolerable thanks to Berlioz’s wealth of ideas and Davis’s integration of them – and his belief is unwavering.
The ’Trojan March’ is in a different league, so too the ’National Anthem’; both enshrine Trojan spirit. ’Royal Hunt and Storm’ is an elevated creation of musical nature-painting (pre-empting Wagner’s ’Forest Murmurs’), and also when Dido and Aeneas get it together (so to speak!) – here wonderfully atmospheric, then thrilling, with fine use of distant perspectives.
Davis’s sustaining of interior scenes, the revealing of characters’ intimate feelings, and his projection of ’public’ display is equally persuasive. As Dido, Michelle De Young is imperious; Ben Heppner’s Aeneas is charged – their Act 4 ’Love Duet’ is rapt and starlit. The ’other parts’ are all taken with distinction and, more important, a sense of belonging to something very special – Toby Spence’s plangent tenor and Peter Mattei’s subtly shaded Act 1 cavatina (track 5) being especially memorable.
The recording is superbly vivid, cleanly balanced, the medium of an extraordinary undertaking – great music, great conducting, inspirational performing. At £20, this set, with full notes, synopsis and French/English text, is a steal.

 

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